Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hmmm....Something to Think About!

Too often, especially in early childhood education, ideas are cycled around a general idea or area, and by the time they are used by most, the meaning behind them has been lost or simply diluted to the point that it is difficult to see the real "point" of the activity.

I'm guilty of this as well.  It's too easy and tempting to see an idea and repeat it without really questioning why we are doing the activity in the first place! 

Questioning the purpose behind the "cute" and "fun" activity is an important part of teaching!  Questioning why someone else is doing an activity with the children isn't an attack on them, at least not in my view.  And, to be quite honest, I often question because I LIKE the idea, I'm simply struggling with articulating why it should be done...or perhaps wondering if there is more to it that could be explored!

Questioning things is my way of learning more, of defining my beliefs more clearly and of challenging myself to think about things in a different way.  Perhaps I just teach in an environment where questioning why you are doing an activity is pretty common.  It may not be overt, but it is certainly under the surface of many interactions with other teachers, administrators and parents.

It is nearly impossible for me to plan activities or find activities that others have used or designed without questioning what the children will learn from the activity and what I would like the children to gain from this (short and/or long term). 

At one time, it was truly enough for a preschool teacher to say that an activity was simply "cute" or "fun" or "loved by the children" and this was enough to justify doing the activity.  Many more of us are teaching preschool in public school systems. 

This is simply nowhere near enough of an explanation for doing an activity!

When the children are using strips of colored paper and index cards with scissors (multiple kinds) my explanation is that one child is at the point of snipping with scissors so strips of paper gives him a way to see his progress (he can snip a piece and it falls off).  Another child is cutting across paper.  Index cards are stiffer offering more resistance and are less likely to fold over and collapse as he cuts across.  Another child is using adapted scissors in order to push down on a lever and snip since he doesn't yet have the muscle strength to use typical scissors. 

When the children are exploring sticks, twigs, acorns, pine cones and leaves in the sensory table and another teacher walks in and says "Should he really be playing with that?" I need to be able to articulate WHY I feel it is important that he does, indeed, play with that!  And, I also need to be able to point out that these same items are available outside all the time! 

When we're baking cookies and a child is manipulating cookie dough like play dough and another one is rolling the rolling pin across his head after rolling out the cookie dough, I need to be able to explain to those who work with me why it is NOT better to simply take the cookie dough and shape it for the child or take the rolling pin away from the child and do it for them!

When we are painting with q-tips or cotton balls or bath sponges and a parent stops to comment how "cute" the activity is, I simply comment that, yes, it is cute, and the children are working on fine motor skills while painting with q-tips, they are working to strengthen hand muscles and work those muscles needed for scissor snipping by using a clothespin to clip the cotton ball and paint and they are exploring the textures and variations of the bath sponges and experimenting with the types of prints these make.

Even with very open ended, child-initiated play, there can be a clear and defined reason for presenting certain materials.  Why would we open up every area in our outdoor classroom if we're pretty sure the children may not even explore the tree cookies?  Well, we want to make sure these are an OPTION for the children to explore!  If they are never available, how will we ever know if the children will explore them?  And one day they may surprise us by using these in a unique and wonderful way!

Perhaps where you teach, you ARE the administrator.  Perhaps you have the ability to do what you want, when you want!  I would still argue that you should question what the purpose is behind activities/ materials/decisions!  Go ahead!  Question yourself!  Question your colleagues!  Feel free to start a dialogue about things you feel strongly about!   

You just might find out something new about someone else!  You also may tap into an area someone knows more about than you do!  And you just may learn something new about yourself, your beliefs, and most importantly, you may grow as a teacher! 


  1. What an insightful post. I have been having this discussion with a couple of colleagues lately as we tend to plan based on the children's needs and interests as opposed to themes. And since we have to connect our plans and activities to our early learning standards, we are always thinking about the 'why' and not choosing something just because we like like it or think it's cute.

  2. Ugh... Thanks for posting I've been struggling to plan the "perfect lesson" for an observation that is going to be tied to my pay. This "peer" observer also goes into k to 5th grade classrooms to observer special needs children. What I want to do and what I need to do are two different things! I need to give him a lesson with my special needs 3,4,and 5 year olds that he can fit into his rubric that is for all of elementary, What I want to do is more like our everyday play to learn. I've been questioning almost too much! Most of it has been aimed towards the reason they feel that they can judge how effective and "good" of a teacher I am in two 30 minute lesson a year. But as I struggle during this break planning the "perfect lesson" I can say that I usually question "why" and "what for" constantly in regards to my "non-perfect" teaching daily. Thanks for reminding me I'm normal!!! (Or as normal as any special needs pre-school teacher can be). Now I'm off to try to find a standard (of which my state doesn't have any for pk) all of my IEPS can fit into. I need to use some smoke and mirrors for most of this wish me luck!

  3. Oh Holly- I didn't even touch on the fact that sometimes we can literally be "set up" to fail! We do need to question why we do things- but we also need to have things "measured" in accurate, helpful and "fair" ways! I agree you will need to use some smoke and mirrors in order to "meet" standards that are written for elementary. I definitely wish you luck, but wish your state would recognize early childhood as a unique and distinct area and the day needs to be filled with hands-on, child or adult initiated, small and large group activities!

  4. Great post Pam. The WHY is so important, much more than the cute or the WHAT that will be made. You articulated some great whys. We should always have a purpose for what we're doing with kids.

  5. I always have a purpose for each activity I introduce to my students but I am not always great at articulating that purpose or goal for others. I need to work on this a bit more:)

  6. Love this post! I wish there were more ECEs prepared to question themselves and others about the WHY... and to be honest when their 'why' is 'because it makes it easier for ME'!!

  7. I hate when people use the word cute to describe when kids are learning! I always reply... yes they are cute but you teach them to read... it is not easy! Very insightful post... you know what annoys me... when administrators think we don't have all the thought out and that they are just painting with QTips. I sort of feel it is their job to know early childhood concepts too. =)

  8. Shelly- in my opinion planning for the needs of the specific children is one of the best ways to keep on track as to why we are doing things and to stay away from simply doing things because they are "cute" :)

    Thanks Scott- by the way, these are all true examples...

    Deborah- I often get "stuck" on the why when I feel put on the spot by another teacher or teacher associate. I've actually had to say to new teacher associates that work with me in the classroom that I love having them ask why we are doing something in the classroom, but not to be offended if I don't fully answer until the next day or at least when we have down time while the children are napping. This gives me a bit more time to think through what is most important to convey to them! (a bit of cheating, I know).

    Aunt Annie- I absolutely agree we do need to make sure to distinguish when this is even in part to make an adult's life easier. (and sometimes I think these two things get intertwined and then become part of the fabric of the classroom- making it even more difficult to distinguish between).

    Jennifer- I also agree with this- in a perfect world we wouldn't ever have to justify why we are doing what we are doing- administrators should be just as well "versed" in ECE as they are in other areas. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that is in our near future :(

  9. http://www.ooeygooey.com/a-crash-course-in-the-language-of-wolves/

    You need to check out Lisa Murphy's article on the Language of Wolves. Most people know her as The Ooey Gooey Lady. She is WONDERFUL!!!!! In her article she address exactly what you are talking about.

  10. Janette- Thanks tons for reminding me of this great article!!! I had read it previously, but had completely forgotten about it! Thank you so much for reminding me! You are right- this is exactly what I am talking about- and the list of words at the end of the article is perfect! I will be posting a link to that article on my facebook page- so valuable!

  11. Pam.
    I enjoy reading here because I always find thoughtful writing. I find solace, also so often, because you articulate so well some of the dilemmas, and situations encountered in everday early childhood education.
    Thanks for this post, and all your wonderful posts of the past year.

  12. I love this post... a while ago I did observations in a kindergarten room where everything was SO academic, the kids were all sitting down and reading and doing math at ALL times, and the teacher had lamented to me how she wanted them to be able to do more fun and light-hearted things. She felt that kids at that age learned more when they were doing hands on activities and exploring. Your post shows that early childhood teachers can still do beloved, "fun and cute" activities that kids do need.

  13. Reflection is an integral part of being an effective teacher. You make some valid points Pam, both in your post & in your responses to comments. I love your smake & mirrors analogy for Holly. I used to struggle in a similar way, to record & plan authhentic experiences that met some sterile list of objectives. I stubbornly wrote things in a way that ticked the boxes, but didn't sell the chn out. Now the way we program has changed to better reflect the recent creation of a national framework in Australia. This means that our programming & planning is now more attuned to how I believe we should record. Chn will amaze us in innumerable ways if we empower them, such as giving them choices like you do.

    Well said & written.


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